One of the things I underestimated most when I started out writing was the importance of point of view (PoV) in writing fiction. In fact, I didn’t really give it much thought. After learning about it and re-reading my old work, I quickly realised that sloppy PoV writing undermines the rest of your story, its clarity and impact. With PoV our job as writers is to make clear which character the reader should be identifying with and when. Once you know to look you’ll probably spot it a lot and although the principle is basic, following it all the time is not as easy as you’d think!

Point of View

Here’s a short passage written in third person from my book Orca Rising, here we can see there is a clear and tight point of view character, called Ocean. We are ‘with’ him the whole time and nobody else.

There were no revision classes that afternoon, so Ocean went home. Though it was Wednesday lunchtime, the time zone at home was set for Saturday night. The curtains were drawn and Match of the Day was on playback. Lager can. Smouldering ash-tray. Cigarette gasping out its last grey breaths. And there he was, tarnishing the sofa like a spilt drink. Andy. He had a hand down his trousers, cupping rather than scratching.

What are you doing home?’

Without taking his eyes from the screen Andy lifted up an arm in a cast.

‘Ouch.’ Ocean resisted the urge to smile. ‘How did you do that?’

Andy liberated his good hand, reached for his lager, saw it away and belched. ‘Rather not talk about it. Fetch us another would you?’

Fetch it yourself you waste of space. But no. He’d promised to make more of an effort, so off he went.

How is this tight to Ocean’s PoV? Well, we begin the paragraph establishing that it’s his PoV with the words ‘so Ocean went home.’ We then get some of his thoughts and impressions on his mother’s boyfriend, Andy, who tarnishes the couch ‘like a spilt drink.’ Andy certainly doesn’t think that, it’s Ocean. We get his internal thought ‘Fetch it yourself you waste of space.’ again this is Ocean. You might point to this sentence, ‘Without taking his eyes from the screen Andy lifted up an arm in a cast.’ or indeed the next sentence about Andy drinking his lager as PoV slips… but these are things noticed by Ocean, still from his PoV even though Andy is doing them. I didn’t bother saying ‘Ocean watched Andy liberate his good hand….’ because I don’t need to, it’s implicit that it’s him and more direct to just say what he is seeing.

PoV Slips

PoV slips are what happens when we depart from the point of view character, briefly enter the mind or PoV of a different character and then return to the main PoV character. I’ll stick with Ocean to invent an example of what not to do.

Ocean scaled the wall, paused at the top and looked down for Claude.

‘You can do it Claude, jump up! Quick!’

Claude was shorter than he was. He took a good run up but he flailed at the wall, catching his fingers painfully against the brickwork at the top.

‘I can’t do it!’

This is quite a subtle one, on the face of it you might think, that’s okay, we’re with Ocean, aren’t we? He’s the one observing Claude, watching him take a run at the wall and fail. And you’d be right but for one word. Painfully. Think about it…how does Ocean feel that it’s painful if we’re with him and it’s his PoV? We could maybe hear Claude cry out, observe him shaking out his hand, wincing, cradling it in his arm, see the scratch redden with blood, whatever – that would all be observable from Ocean’s PoV…but Claude’s pain is not Ocean’s PoV, it’s Claude’s.

Writing Hacks for maintaining PoV

  • Mentally, be inside your character’s head as you write
  • Use words that your PoV character would use
  • If you’re writing a story with multiple PoV characters, try keeping their chapters distinct. If you can’t do this, you need to make an extra effort to be clear about which PoV we are with, when and flag when there is a change.
  • Get a good proof-reader on your work, you won’t always spot everything.

Happy writing


Alright, let’s kick this thing off and read a short paragraph about Reginald shall we?

“Reginald walked quite quickly across the forecourt, bumping angrily into one person and then another. ‘Watch where you’re going,’ he said crossly, swatting violently with his newspaper at the nearest blunderer. ‘Make way!’ Once through the heaving throng of people, he tossed his frayed newspaper remorsefully into the next bin he saw. He didn’t have time to read the damn thing he was so late. More’s the pity.”

Let’s park for the moment whether you think the passage is good or bad, for the sake of this exercise, it actually doesn’t matter. What matters is whether we can do anything to make the passage better. This we will aim to do by decluttering the passage of its adverbs.

Er….What is an adverb?

An adverb is a modifier, typically (though not always) you’ll see an -ly on the end of it, like carefully, respectfully etc. Here’s a list of over 3000 of them. Google says adverbs are: a word or phrase that modifies or qualifies an adjective, verb, or other adverb or a word group, expressing a relation of place, time, circumstance, manner, cause, degree, etc. (e.g., gentlyquitethenthere ).

Ok got it. Why are adverbs so common in writing then?

What is often taught in schools about creative writing is completely at odds with what is taught by professional creative writing teachers. At school, children are encouraged to use flowery vocabulary and descriptive adverbs. In a sense, this is good, because it’s definitely worth having a broad and varied vocabulary at your disposal right? You have to use these words in order to learn them. No issue there. The problem is, this ‘bad habit’ carries on uncorrected and will feature in their future creative writing.

What’s your actual beef with adverbs themselves then?

My beef is that adverbs are explanation. When you hear the oft misunderstood edict to ‘show but don’t tell,’ what people actually mean is show but don’t explain. (Telling is fine but I’ll talk about that another time). Adverbs are a perfect example of this. You’re explaining the way something should be interpreted by the reader. Now what’s wrong with that? Well, as a general rule, readers enjoy working things out for themselves with the clues you give them. Therein lies the enjoyment. When you tell someone exactly how to interpret something, it becomes less interesting. There’s less for the reader to engage with. So there, that’s my beef with adverbs. That’s not to say they can never be used, there are no universals here. The main point is to be aware that you’re using an adverb and if you are, have a good reason for doing so.

So let’s revisit the passage from the beginning. Here i’ve bolded the adverbs.

“Reginald walked quite quickly across the forecourt, bumping angrily into one person and then another. ‘Watch where you’re going,’ he said crossly, swatting violently with his newspaper at the nearest blunderer. ‘Make way!’ Once through the heaving throng of people, he tossed his frayed newspaper remorsefully into the next bin he saw. He didn’t have time to read the damn thing he was so late. More’s the pity.”

Now, we could just delete the adverbs, but in some cases we may benefit from using different words. So here’s a heavier edit.

“Reginald paced across the forecourt, bumping into one person and then another. ‘Watch where you’re going!’ he swatted his newspaper at the nearest blunderer. ‘Make way!’ Once through the heaving throng of people, he tossed his frayed newspaper into a bin. He didn’t have time to read the damn thing anyway. More’s the pity.”

Overall the whole things is shorter, tighter and more direct. Let’s examine why. Clearly ‘paced’ is preferable to the clunky ‘walked quite quickly’ (urgh it makes me shudder!). So using active verbs is a good tip for replacing some adverbs. She stepped quietly can become, she tiptoed. He said loudly can become he shouted/yelled/cried. Out of all the adverbs in the passage, the worst was probably ‘remorsefully’. Doesn’t it just stick out and poke you in the ribs? This is typical of a writer trying to get across an idea; in this case, that his character is annoyed that he won’t have time to read the paper. But it’s not necessary to explain that to your reader with the adverb. The reader will get it from the sentence that follows “He didn’t have time to read the damn thing anyway. More’s the pity.” which just so happens to be an example of Free Indirect Speech – check out Writing Hacks Week 8 if you want to read more about that technique.

Dhalsim’s approach to adverbs

As the great Stephen King says, “the path to hell is paved with adverbs.” Off you go then! Sharpen your machetes and watch your adverbs quietly tremble!

Happy writing


Plot is a massive topic and one I’ll frequently return to in Writing Hacks. Today, I want to talk about macro-plotting and using plot points to anchor your major story destination points to help keep your novel’s shape. I would always recommend that you write knowing how your book is going to end, but more than that, you should know (at least roughly) what your major plot points are along the way. As we’ll see below, most plots will follow an approximation of this standard plot diagram below:

It can be helpful to map out your novel visually. For one it gives you an easy reference and lets you ‘see’ the overall shape of your novel. These things are great motivators too, keeping you on track and more likely to finish. Each time you hit a milestone it’s a ‘Well done! you’re one step closer to finishing! Plus, when you’re dealing in bitesized novel chunks you are by default not wrangling with the while massive lump of novel all at once. Let’s breeze through this example structure.

Setup – Typically this will establish the status quo, who is your point of view character(s). Your job here is to also get across location, time and place (using direct action) to situate the reader in your novel. Some sense of what your PoV character wants or is lacking, subtly conveyed, would make for a strong setup.

Plot Point 1 – Inciting incident: This will be either something borne out of your PoV character’s action; e.g. The trod upon dogsbody finally quits their job, a happily married woman finds herself inexplicably following someone she finds attractive. Or it is something that happens to your character; e.g. a river bursts its banks forcing a family to move out of their flooded house and in with cantankerous relatives. Either way, something happens to upset the status quo and creates conflict or dilemma with your PoV character.

Rising action – This is simply development and further smaller plot points that move the story forward. Sub-plots emerge and your PoV character’s desires and wishes are frustrated and prevented. Complexity increases.

Plot Point 2 – An emblematic major moment in the novel. There will be a small climax that will be bigger in significance than the inciting incident in Plot Point 1, but not as big in significance as the climax in Plot Point 3 to come. This will give the sense of rising drama and is critical to the build up to the climax.

Plot Point 3 – This is the key period of drama in your novel, the moments you’ve worked so hard to build up patiently. It will be the key point of drama or crisis for your PoV character. In police procedurals, it’ll be the scene where the detective finally confronts the killer he/she’s been chasing. It’s the moment when the husband realises he’s lost his wife forever or when the fight between two warring armies takes place. Things may be happening fast but here you need to maximise the dramatic payoff. Don’t rush through this, depict the full action and emotion of what’s happening.

Falling action – This is the fallout of PP3, a warrior is picking through the dead army, sombre but victorious. The husband is wondering how he can live without her, the detective has the perp in cuffs but is scarred mentally from the confrontation.

Exit music

Plot Point 4 – You’re cantering towards the finish line now, so what’s the exit music to your novel? Is there an emblematic moment? A medal ceremony to laud the heroic warriors. The husband crying into a photograph while on a bench? The detective hitting the bottle? This is your moment to leave your novel’s last impression on the reader…or set up the sequel.

Mapping out your novel doesn’t mean you can’t be flexible

I find mapping out a novel at a macro level extremely helpful. That doesn’t mean that the plot points are set in stone forever and can never change. Sometimes in the process of writing you think of a better idea and that’s awesome! You just re-plot, checking that everything still fits together as a whole- or if not you start again. Some people find it helpful to map out the minor plot details in this visual way too, with detailed graph annotations that serve as a turn by turn sat-nav for their novel. I’ve seen amazingly detailed excel charts of each character’s plot arcs, people who use revision flash cards and sticky notes. However you do it, you need to find a method that works for you and that might take some experimentation and trial and error. So try a few different ways and see what works best for you.

Happy plotting


Narrator or PoV character?

I first came across the term Free Indirect Speech when reading a book by renowned critic (and author in his own right) James Woods, in his book How Fiction Works. As an aside–it’s a great read, you should check it out if you’re interested in learning more about the craft of writing.

So what is Free Indirect Speech?

Well, i’d describe it as a blending of the narrative voice with the character voice in a narrated passage (i.e. not dialogue). Sounds complicated, but it really isn’t. Let’s look at an example, i’ve lifted this one off my current WIP.

While her friends at school acted grown up, she simply was and didn’t have to pretend. She had a boyfriend–Mark–an indulgence in his mid-twenties, who wore fitted shirts and worked for a high-end estate agent.

What makes this Free Indirect Speech as opposed to just a narrator’s passage? There are a couple of signals here but one single word flags it the most strongly. Can you spot it? It’s the word indulgence. Think about it, who’s word is that? To whom is Mark an indulgence? Certainly not to the narrator, therefore it must be point of view character’s word. She appropriates or even taints the passage with that word, pulling it towards her gravity. Substitute the word ‘indulgence’ with ‘man’ or ‘estate-agent’ and it becomes just a normalish narrative paragraph. The other flag here is the ‘high-end’ estate agent. That is a distinguishing detail important to her. Why? The astute reader will make inferences about the character that make her seems more rounded, real and complex.

Third Person

FIS only really applies when you’re writing in the third person. In first person everything being told is narrated by that point of view already. One of the reasons why some (including me) think third person is a preferable mode for narration is because it affords you the flexibility of techniques like FIS that just aren’t in the armoury for first person works (that isn’t to say there is no place for 1st person work!).

When should I use it?

Like everything in writing, don’t use it all the time or it gets boring. Variety and change of pace is a key technique to keep your reader enthralled in your book. Think of your book being told as if a camera were on the shoulder of your point of view character. There are moments when you want to zoom in, get closer to that character, to let the reader get to know them better. There are moments when you want to zoom out, and let the reader wonder what they’re thinking. FIS gives you a subtle way to get your reader a little closer to your PoV character in narrative passages that functionally are just there to ‘move the story along’. This is good because you aren’t now having to do EVERYTHING in dialogue or through direct action, there is a little glimpse into your character that can tell the reader a lot. For example, in my example above, what can you infer from the word indulgence? And ‘high-end’ estate agent? What does that make you think the PoV character is like and how she sees herself? In short, a few small words can do a lot of work for you.

If this is the first time you’ve read about this, you’ll probably start noticing it all the time in good writing – I did! Whether it’s Jane Austen talking about someone’s ‘tolerable fortune’ (tolerable to whom!?) or V.S Naipaul’s Mr Biswas sleeping on his Slumberking bed and consuming Maclean’s brand stomach powder….you’ll start to see FIS in the ether, everywhere!

Happy writing


Chris is author of Orca Rising, which you can read here, or if you don’t like paying with bank money, here.

Shaun, on his way to doing some editing

This week I talk with author Shaun Baines. I met Shaun having shared an agent and a publisher and found we had more in common than just writing. We both left the city to live in rural areas to write, tend to our gardens and chickens! Shaun’s author of Peoples Book Prize Nominated book Woodcutter, the first in The Daytons trilogy of gritty, gangster noir set in Newcastle. The second book, Pallbearer is just out this week. Despite the violence he can conjure up on the page, he’s a really nice bloke and a lot of fun to talk to. Today I wanted to chat with him about the psychology of writing, dealing with feedback, rejections and what success means. I really enjoyed our chat and hope you do too.

In Conversation with Shaun Baines

CH: Pallbearer, the second book in the Dayton series has just come out this week, Congratulations! How do you feel it’s going as a writer? 

SB: A second book feels special. I’ve learned how to be a better writer and now I know my first book wasn’t a fluke. I’m not sure I’d call myself a proper writer yet, (maybe when you read Pallbearer, you won’t, either,) but I feel more in control. I’m not free-wheeling down the side of a mountain anymore. I’m half-way to knowing what I’m doing.

CH: I was thinking a bit about how as a writer, you know you’ve proper made it when people refer to other people’s work through the lens of yours; i.e. that novel has a Dickensian feel to it. Could you envisage someone saying in a few years time, talking about a new gritty, gangster noir book that it is positively Bainesian? I mean, how cool would that be?

SB: Bainesian sounds like a disorder of some kind. Like something you’d contract in the tropics. I doubt I’ll ever reach a level where I’m a reference point, but I have worked hard to do things my way. A reader told me she could recognise my writing without my name being attached. It has its own distinctive feel. That’s a huge compliment and something every author should aim for because no-one can take that away from you.

CH: So what is success for you, writing wise?

SB: A gold yacht? Or one that doesn’t sink because it’s way too heavy? I think of success as an end point that can’t be reached because the goal posts are constantly shifting. But there are a lot of milestones to be celebrated on the way. Finishing a novel is the first one, then a publishing contract, holding your first book in your hand. One of my major milestones was being stopped in the street by a postman and being asked to sign a book. He’d been carrying Woodcutter around for weeks, hoping to bump into me. And what’s more, he’d done it as a gift to his wife at Christmas.

CH: And how do you think other people breaking into fiction should set their expectations?

SB: If you said to me, “I have a job for you. You’ll work seven days a week for very little money or thanks. Strangers will happily tear you apart for doing this job. You’ll suffer from a range of anxieties, probably put on weight and you can never, ever quit.” I’d say, “Is there anything going at the sewerage works?”It depends on what a writer’s expectations are. If it is to produce some writing they are happy with, then that boils down to hard work, but it’s achievable. If it’s to make millions of pounds, you better join me down the shit pit because people drop their phones down toilets and we can sell them on.

CH: I know what you mean, royalty cheques sound so glamorous…until you see the actual numbers. I’ll meet you down in the sewer, let me get my gloves!

SB: I actually refer to royalty cheques as ‘my beans.’ As in, how many cans of beans will this buy me? 

CH: At a guess i think i’m good for about four cans of beans. Though if I were to go supermarket brand it’d stretch to seven or eight. In all seriousness though, there’s a nice camaraderie sharing the realities of what it’s like to break into the writing world isn’t there?

SB: Yeah, I have to say the writing community is a really friendly, supportive place, which is unusual in a competitive market place. We’re all in this together and I’ve made some good mates. No matter what your expectations, when they’re not met for whatever reason, there’s always someone around to sympathise. It’s our choice to write and let’s not forget, it’s a great job filled with great people. Do you see other writers as friends or competitors?

CH: I always try and be friendly and supportive and I just assume everyone else is that same: that’s my opening gambit with anyone i meet in the writing world. Inevitably I’ve had a couple of negative experiences among the many, many good ones. It’s usually when someone gets in touch, appears very nice and then after a few interactions the mask slips and its all about what you can do to help them promote their book or who i can introduce them to. So I have no time for users, but I’d give up a lot of time to help people who I think merit it.

SB: Like me!

CH: For sure! Let’s share a little bit about some of our experiences on receiving feedback. I remember having to write a piece for my Creative Writing Masters. I was feeling super confident because i’d had glowing feedback from our (hard-to-please) lecturer on my last piece of work. I remember spending ages on it, and i sent it off feeling really proud of what i’d done. The response was tantamount to ‘You’ve completely missed the point, re-do it.’ Ouch. But what can you do but suck it up, take the advice and have another go? I think it’s better to be challenged, to reassess your own work critically, particularly if it’s someone’s opinion you respect. What’s the worst feedback you’ve ever had and how did you cope with it?

SB: I have really low self-esteem so I don’t think I’ve received bad feedback. I assume that I deserve it somehow. Hand on heart though, I don’t think I’ve had anything cutting. One reviewer couldn’t stomach some of the violence. Her favourite genre was Christian romance fiction. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a hell of a jump from that to Woodcutter. It’s like going from fish fingers to fermented fish. Her taste was out of line with my own and just because you like stories doesn’t mean you’ll like all stories. Giving a book a low rating because of that doesn’t seem fair.

CH: Yeah, that’s just about book fit, but then maybe there’s a sadistic pleasure in reading genres you will automatically hate so you can write searing reviews about them. Speaking of sadism, let’s talk about what sort of feedback works for you. I used to run a writing group in Brighton, and one of the things i noticed is that people are often in different places with the type of response they need, if early in their career and tentative they often need encouragement and support, but others need a ‘pull your finger out, you can do a lot better.’ What sort of feedback do you find most helpful?

SB: I’m into the tough love. Not sure how I’d respond to being told to ‘pull my finger out.’ I’m more of a ‘finger in’ kind of guy. The criticism has to be constructive. If it’s given in a way that improves your writing, it’s nothing but good. Woodcutter wasn’t the first book I wrote. I wrote one in my twenties and paid an editor to give me his thoughts. What I received was a four page rant on how I wasn’t a writer. “Why did you even send this to me? I’m not wasting my time going through this rubbish.” He still cashed the fucking cheque, though. His response crushed me and I didn’t write another word for almost twenty years. Spite like that is damaging and has no place in the writing community. Honestly, if I could remember that guy’s name I would out him to protect other writer’s suffering at his hands. Then I’d go round his house when he was asleep and do things to him.

CH: If that guy’s read any of your books, he’s probably booking himself into Witness Protection right about now. The good news is you don’t need him anymore (and didn’t back then either). Do you think you’re tough on yourself, when redrafting?

SB: I like to think I’m pretty ruthless. I’m certainly not precious about anything I write. If it’s not working, I cut it from the narrative. I’ve never done a creative writing course so I mainly go on instinct. I’ve read lots of books and watched lots of TV. You get a sense of when things need to change. My process, if I can call it that, is write the first draft. Read and make notes for the second. Show my wife for the third. Tidy up writing for the fourth. Send to beta-readers for fifth. Line edit for sixth. Proof read over and over. Send to publisher/agent, take their notes and make final draft.I don’t enjoy the process until I work on the fourth draft and I start to feel I might have something. How many drafts do you do?

CH: Too many to count. There was no set number really, but i think with Orca Rising I probably had about twenty drafts before it was out there in the world. Maybe five or so before I sent it to agents, and then some at the agent’s recommendation, then publishers etc. It’s probably different for each book. With more experience, I suspect–based on what writers like David Mitchell say–that you need to do less redrafting, presumably because you’re just getting more of it right first time round.

SB: Imagine writing a book in one go.

CH: A writer’s aspiration, an editor’s worst nightmare! So, now Let’s talk about getting an agent and/or a publisher interested in your writing. For me, I think the dynamic here is totally fucked by market economies. There are way too many writers, writing too many books to a saturated market, in short it’s super-competitive so what you have is a situation whereby agents and publishers are spoilt for choice and are flooded with manuscripts. Making your work stand out from the crowd is now more important than ever. There’s crafted cover letters and synopses to write and then a 6-8 week wait for an (often) templated reply. I can see why a lot of people get frustrated. But when you take a step back, it’s easy to forget that without you, the writer, agents and publishers have nothing. They cannot exist without us, yet in reality it feels like the opposite is true. What are your thoughts about this, and how can writers keep sane when it’s more than 99% likely that they’ll be looking at a rejection email after a lot of hard work.

SB: You’re always going to have a flooded market when being an author is one of the top jobs to aspire to. People do it out of love rather than money and that makes them vulnerable to exploitation. Rejection is part of the job. It’s not palatable or easy to swallow, but I think it comes in two forms. Firstly, your book is rejected because it’s not good enough or you haven’t spent enough time on it. Instinctively, we’ll know when this is the case. Secondly, a book is rejected because it doesn’t fit the current market trend. I find this harder to take because there is nothing I can do about it. I’ve written the book I want to read and no amount of redrafting is going to change that.I don’t spend much time on cover letters. I make sure they’re professional and polite, but its the book that does the talking. Hitting the zeitgeist is beyond my control, but I hear gangster noir is going to be big this year.

CH: Where do you stand on Self-Publishing?

SB: It’s seen as a last resort when it’s not. It’s just incredibly difficult so some self-published books come out looking amateurish. As always, you need money. An editor costs money. A proofreader costs money. A cover designer costs money and if you don’t have that money, it affects how your book is received costing you more money. A book someone has spent years writing suddenly goes down the tube and that’s not fair. Writers aren’t stupid, but most of us are poor so we’re backed into a corner, forced to pay money we can ill afford to see our dreams come true. You’ve self-published a book. How was the process for you?

CH: It was a last resort really. Kidding! With my first novel, Perry Scrimshaw’s Rite of Passage, i wrote it for my Masters and it just grew from an exercise I did as part of my coursework. It had no real market or commercial hope so I didn’t even try to get it placed with a publisher or agent. I self-published for two reasons, one because my family and friends asked to read it and wondered what the hell i’d been doing the last few years, did I have anything to show for it? Yes, i could point to this thing and say there, it’s available if you want it. And second, i self-pubbed just to learn and see what the process was like. You have a lot of autonomy of course; creating the cover, the blurb and all that jazz, but there’s also the formatting (yawn) and the marketing. It’s a lot more work but you do get a lot more creative control and more spoils if it comes off. I personally hate self-promotion and I see a lot of authors spamming twitter with their books 8-10 times a day. Why would anyone want that in their feed? Unfollow. So having done both, I prefer having a Publishing House behind me, though i wouldn’t rule out self-publishing again. Alright, so that’s enough writing chat, let’s get the stuff people really want to know about you Sean. We’re both keen gardeners, if your writing were a vegetable, which would it be and why?

SB: You have no idea how many times I’ve been asked that. Always with the vegetable questions. Er…I think my writing would be a parsnip; one that hits a stone when its growing and becomes all twisted. And when you pull it out, its formed into a weird face you can’t cut in to because you’re worried it might haunt your dreams. 

CH. I knew you’d go for a root veg. That’s gangster veg! Thanks for hanging out with me today Shaun, I’ve got Pallbearer downloaded and ready to be go and i’m looking forward to it after Woodcutter. What’s next for you?

SB: I’m writing the third Dayton novel for publication next year. Then I’m thinking of doing a series of novellas. I also have a collection of short stories I’d like to self-publish.But right now, I have to go outside and clear up after a two day storm. Living the writer’s dream, eh?

Pallbearer and Shaun’s first book in the trilogy, Woodcutter are available from Sharpe Books.

This week let’s talk metaphor and simile. Both are used as comparators, and when used well can make your writing leap off the page. First, what’s the difference?

A Simile is apparent when you see the word ‘like’ or ‘as’ before the comparison. Here’s a couple of examples from my friend Shaun Baines’ upcoming book Pallbearer. If you’re into gangster noir, you should check out his work, it’s chock-full of great similes.

[Describing a fishing boat] “Where it had once been white, rust pockmarked the paint so it looked like it was infected with boils” (from Pallbearer)

“A vast chandelier hung like a crystal tear drop from the ceiling ” (from Pallbearer)

“A small pool of water had formed under his feet, as if the conversation were melting him.” (from Orca Rising)

Metaphor on the other hand states a comparison, describes something in a way which isn’t literally true for symbolic effect.

‘Her voice was a poem.’ (me)

‘Don’t let the weather make your Russian brain soggy.’ (Pallbearer)

If you’re interested in telling the difference there’s a cool quiz you can do on Grammarly here.

Five Tips for Metaphors and Similes

  1. Metaphors in particular should estrange and then connect with the reader. The goal is to challenge the reader in a surprising and pleasing way that after a moment’s pause immediately fits and makes sense.
  2. Avoid clichés. Say something new. In our stripped down, economic, modern way of writing metaphors and similes are one of the few chances you get to show off your creativity, make it count!
  3. The metaphor or simile should be in keeping with the point of view character’s lexicon and thinking. For example, a violent character might ‘see’ things in an ugly way, so using a metaphor about a beautiful flower might not be appropriate. The Pallbearer example above of the fishing boat’s sides looking like ‘infected boils’ is great because the character noticing this is a mean gangster who sees the world through that sort of lens. It feels entirely apposite.
  4. Don’t overdo it. With M & S, less is more. It’s better to have one killer simile than three goodish ones which dilute the impact. In my opinion, more than one a page is too much.
  5. Here’s a tip I heard my favourite writer David Mitchell share at a talk he gave. When asked how and why his metaphors and similes were so damn good, he said that when he finished his draft of a novel he’d go through the manuscript and give a score out of five to every simile and metaphor. If it scored a three or under, he binned it. Get harsh!

That’s me, now check out this little dude.


Ever find sometimes when you’re writing that you go off on these tangents, introducing plots, sub-plots, even characters that just occur to you in the moment? Sometimes this meandering bears fruit but the majority of the time when you read it back the story’s gone all over the place. You like what you added but it doesn’t seem to somehow fit with the overall structure. Trust me, I’ve done it a LOT.

I was a meanderer. A serial meanderer. I couldn’t figure out why i couldn’t finish a novel, i’d get halfway through and wonder what the hell had happened to my brilliant idea and overall plot. So i’d abandon it, start another one. Then it happened again. And then a third time… That’s when I decided to do a Masters, to ‘tool up’ and learn some craft skills and techniques that could help me stay on track, become a better writer and FINISH. This tip is probably one of the simplest, but perhaps the most transformational to my writing. The advice was this: ‘write to a climax.’ I took this on a practical level to decide what the end of the scene would be first, even to write that bit first. I’d then go back to the start of the scene and write until I reached that climatic moment….Here’s what I found:

  • My writing was more purposeful: it became tight and felt like it was going somewhere.
  • There was less meandering and more economy. More coherence and more clarity.

When you think about it, it makes sense. everyone has read a page turner at one time or another or watched a film with a ‘cliffhanger’ in it. This isn’t a complex idea to grasp. What is a little harder to get your head around is that ‘writing to a climax’ doesn’t mean you have to write huge climaxes; cars crashing through cocktail bars or the mega twist when the protagonist realises they’e drunk the poison they’d intended for another. Climaxes can also be subtle, gentle. It’s the build up that gives the climatic moment meaning in retrospect, so if you write the final moment first, you are more likely to write a killer build up that maximises the payoff of that moment.

Give it a go! Here’s some prompts

So why not try it? You can easily change the ending anyway if you change your mind! If you’ve not got a novel to try it with right now, try with some of these climatic prompts you can use as an exercise.

  • She set down her keys on the coffee table, unwound the scarf from her head and cast her eyes around the lounge. ‘Well don’t just stand there, go and put the kettle on,’ she said.
  • Arms outstretched as if he were an angel, he waded into the howling sea.
  • ‘I love you too.’
  • Her phone vibrated in her pocket, she stole a glance at the screen and her breath caught in her throat. It was him.
  • Matty popped a chip in his mouth, nodded with obvious satisfaction and then took another. It was as easy as that.
  • ‘I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time.’

The last two are taken from my People’s Book Prize shortlisted book Orca Rising, but you can make up any number of stories with those end points. Have fun!



In last week’s blog post I talked about creating character depth, and the week before that about dialogue attributions. This week’s post combines a bit of both, developing dialogue further and at the same time bringing some subtle character depth. How do we do this? By having your characters active during dialogue, or in other words, have them multi-task.

“I see people in terms of dialogue and I believe that people are their talk.” Roddy Doyle

Life Vs Fiction


In life, things rarely happen one thing at a time; you read the news on your phone while stirring your coffee whilst your stomach grumbles for your lunch. You doodle on a pad while talking on the phone. The contrivance of fiction is to actually tell things one at a time, word by word and sentence by sentence and for good reason. Imagine transcribing onto the page the full sensory experience of a single moment. How would you get across all the thoughts you have in a split second, what you’re hearing, seeing, smelling and touching? As a human you can experience all these things at once, but to accurately convey everything together in a sentence all at once? In the words of Macauley Culkin, ‘I don’t think so.’. 

Using action in dialogue

One way of imitating life and making your dialogue more three dimensional is to use action. Let’s look at an example. First, with no action – just flat dialogue with a bit of scene setting beforehand .

Dialogue, without action

Leah shuffled down onto the floor, took off her hair band and handed it to me. I stretched my hand through it so it ringed my wrist like a bracelet. I gathered up her hair in three bunches.

‘God it’s not fair, why isn’t my hair as nice as this. We use the same conditioner.’

‘Yours is longer,’ Leah said.

‘Maybe I should cut mine too.’

‘Please don’t. Can you imagine it at school, “Ooh look here comes the twins!” Urgh.’

‘Yeah.’ I said. 

‘What do you think about Jamie?”

‘Think about him? I don’t think anything about him.’

‘Well, he’s your friend. Don’t you think he’s handsome, come on you must have noticed?’

‘All done here.’

Dialogue with action.

Now let’s check it out with some action and internal thought, same intro. 

Leah shuffled down onto the floor, took off her hair band and handed it to me. I stretched my hand through it so it ringed my wrist like a bracelet. I gathered up her hair in three bunches.

‘God it’s not fair, why isn’t my hair as nice as this. We use the same conditioner.’ I ran my hands through it, letting her hair fall between my fingers, as light as sifting flour.

‘Yours is longer,’ Leah said, turning the page of a magazine in her lap.

‘Maybe I should cut mine too.’

Leah closed the magazine shut like a book. ‘Please don’t. Can you imagine it at school, “Ooh look here comes the twins!” Urgh.’

‘Yeah.’ I said and weaved her hair neatly through into another plait.

‘What do you think about Jamie?”

It came out of nowhere and for a second i just stopped what I was doing. ”Think about him? I don’t think anything about him.’ 

‘Well, he’s your friend. Don’t you think he’s handsome, come on you must have noticed?’

I gave her hair a tug, slightly too rough and wrapped the hair band around the bottom of the plait. ‘All done here.’

White ringed my wrist where the hairband had been to too tight. 


Notice the difference? We learn more about the characters, their personalities through some subtle, and maybe sometimes not so subtle action and internal thought. If we think back to dialogue attributions in writing hack #2, we can also just use action instead of an attribution. For example.

‘Now let me see,’ Danny scratched the back of his head with the blunt end of the pencil, ‘about two-hundred, maybe two fifty quid.’

Also, it’s important not to take one technique – like using action to animate dialogue – and apply it 100% of the time. Imagine reading a book where every conversation was animated with loads of action, it would feel a little laborious I think.  Interesting writing has a variety of techniques in it throughout. It’s the job and skill of the author to choose which technique and when to apply it. Using action in dialogue is just one weapon to have in your armoury.

Further reading: the wonderful science-fiction writer Nancy Kress has three books on writing and written fluently about this topic in particular. Check em out!

That’s us. Until next time.